Kindergarten Redshirting

Does kindergarten redshirting lie at the crossroads of overly academic kindergarten and anxiety parenting?

First, I want to say that my rebuke of forcing summer birthday boys, or anyone who is within range of “average,” to be held back from kindergarten to wait until they mature, like I did last night in this piece on “60 Minutes,” is not a judgment on parents who choose to do so. I think we can all agree that many of us suffer from too much worrying and hand-wringing already: I see parents struggling at the grocery store over which snacks to buy, which toys are appropriate, which preschool is the best “fit,” and my own conversations every day over food and discipline and related items make me wonder if we’ve all gone completely insane. What I do not want to do is put oxygen on another fiery parenting debate. What I would like to do is start a conversation that eases, not stokes, anxieties about student achievement and the popular cultural phenomenon known as “boys are too immature for kindergarten.”

Is redshirting a way to engineer complete success, to make sure that all children are leaders, sports heroes, that all get straight A’s? In today’s hyperfocus on how success in life begins before preschool, are we taking the issue too far – while leaving parents who cannot afford to do so in the dust? What’s the right thing to do about kindergarten redshirting?

I do not claim to know the answer. But there are several points that speak to me, both intellectually and emotionally, that deserve a look.

  • At its best, redshirting kindergartners is inequitable: for those who cannot afford to send their kids to another year of preschool (which in nearly all 50 states is private and must be paid for), on-time kindergarten entrance is a must that eases the financial burdens of poorer families. This puts the child who enters school on time sometimes a full 18 months behind the oldest children in class (this was pointed out nicely in the “60 Minutes” piece). Might the age and experience difference of the students skew test scores and exacerbate the achievement gap between rich and poor? As Gladwell points out, the kids who are being held back are actually the least at-risk for failure.
  • Someone always has to be the youngest, the shortest, the least experienced. Even if everyone moved their child back to enter kindergarten at age six, there would still be the kids who turn six just days before kindergarten begins. There is no way to “protect” everyone from being at the young end of the spectrum, so why are we bothering to do it at all?
  • I have heard from many parents about this issue over the last several years, since I wrote the original essay, and what distresses me most about the redshirting issue is the idea that boys are “immature.” I find this questionable, because 50 years ago boys were at the heads of all the classes, they got the most attention, they had better grades, more went to college, etc. So maybe it’s not that boys or girls are getting more or less mature, but we are viewing them through a different lens. Scholar Kathleen Cleveland thinks so, and she has written extensively on how to teach boys, especially those who struggle in school. She also debunks the myth, supported by her own research, that there is no boy crisis – that boys, when in a supportive environment, do well, as do girls. But, like the preschool my own son attended, there was an obvious prejudice against the way boys are – my son’s teacher cited thumb sucking and doing silly songs and dances (at four!) as logical reasons to hold him back from kindergarten, although he was fully reading – and a teacher who told me that girls are fine in kindergarten because they can “sit still.”
  • I think that a lot of school problems can come back to testing, but this is yet another glitch in our all-accountability testing culture: the pressure to have children do well is immense. This flows backwards, to little or no recess, to kindergarten and preschool homework, to kindergarten redshirting. It’s difficult to blame parents for wanting their child to succeed, when the standards and expectations to do well are increasing at a rapid and sometimes silly rate.

What do you think? What do you think about being a part in helping eliminate the achievement gap? Or have more Montessori-style mixed age classrooms?

My Article for The New York Times Motherlode!

On Thursday’s New York Times website, an article I wrote for the Motherlode blog, “Should Preschoolers Have Homework?” generated over 100 comments from parents! While I was so excited and appreciative to see so many parents weigh in on the topic, I was also a little surprised by how few parents responded to the main tenet of the article: that while nearly all parents agree that homework for the ‘barely potty-trained’ is silly, and while experts continue to weigh in that play-based education is most developmentally appropriate for the youngest children, why don’t more parents speak up? I admit many of the parents who commented said that they would speak up if their child did bring home the dreaded worksheets, but that doesn’t completely explain how preschool homework is allowed to exist in the first place. By speaking up, I guess I don’t mean just talking to a child’s teacher, but I was thinking more of parents banding together and going to all the preschools and having them come up with a policy that says “we will not give homework – at the very least the kind that requires a deadline and ‘turning in’ and receives some kind of reward for doing so.”

I wonder if this has to do with not knowing about all the research available on the value and immense benefits to preschool children of a play-based curriculum – I thought I’d include some of that info here, in the links below. Along with not wanting to rock the boat, as expert Alfie Kohn suggests, and the pressure of preschool testing to get access to coveted magnet/gifted and talented programs, another good reason preschool homework exists and persists is because parents don’t know that homework may not only not help their child, but may actually hurt the early-childhood learning process.

I didn’t know about play-based preschool education and how beneficial it was. I didn’t have any idea that play teaches young children skills they will need later on for academics, and that play nourishes their young, developing brains. As a matter of fact, as a college-educated mother of three, I thought exactly the opposite – get them into academics soon so they can learn the ropes and excel. Right? But, according to (all) the experts, young children a) don’t have the capacity to “work” at acquiring skills and b) need to learn important things about themselves and others, in essence about discovering the world, before they are ready for hard academics. This explains why many preschool children are frustrated and anxious about their homework – they are not ready for what it takes to complete it.

Yes, play is all well and good, I can hear you saying it right now, but play curriculum does not leave space for what today’s kindergarten has turned into – an almost entirely academic affair where children are involved in “work” for the majority of the day? My own son only had 15 minutes of recess all day in 7-hour kindergarten, and homework every single night. How will play-based “discovery” prepare them to enter a kindergarten where most the children have been vigorously prepped – from fine-motor skill development to the basics of math and reading? Will a child who is enveloped in play in preschool be able to catch up with those who haven’t been so enveloped?

According to psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld, in many cases, children are pushed into performing way too soon. “You can get incredible things out of them if you detach them from marks and rewards.” Dr. Neufeld recommends that preschool and kindergarten should be places with no emphasis on outcomes, just learning for the fun of it.

What do you think? Do you think we parents should speak up against the whole lot of it – academic preschool and academic kindergarten? And how to stem the tide?


All Work and No Play: Why Your Children are More Anxious, Depressed

All work and no play… is not good for the developing brain

Feel-Bad Education: The Cult of Rigor and the Loss of Joy

The Truth About Homework